Monday, October 15, 2007

The Teacher-Former Student Relationship

Having lunch today with some former students who were back for Homecoming Weekend. Good, smart, funny alums who always seem to need recommendations for amazing things they are going on to do.

The student-teacher relationship is itself a complex one. How much of a parent, how much of a friend, how much of an arm's length authority is the appropriate stance? Surely, it varies with the student, with the context, but it seems like it is a care-based sort of relationship. Your students are, in a sense, like your children and it is your responsibility to prepare them for the next step and to do what you can to help them get in and achieve in their life's goals, be it grad school, law school, or a job that they need a recommendation for. You can have an incredible effect on the paths of their lives, you are in a position of authority over them, and they are in pivotal places in their own personal development. All of this adds up to a pretty unique relationship, and makes advising (that thing we hate to think of as actually part of our jobs) a very important part of what we do.

But when they come back, when we get e-mails or phone calls, the relationship is different. They are now fellow adults. The power dynamic that used to be the foundation for the relationship is gone. Things are even less formal than they were. They are changing jobs, getting married, embarking on a new adventure. Yet, like a parent, there is a sense that you still have obligations to help them in any way you can. They picked you, you didn't pick them; but the students -- and the former students -- seem to come with responsibility because their lives (like everyone's) are still very much works in progress. You have hundreds of students per year, every year, but to a handful of these students, the relationship with you you will have been formative in important ways. What on-going responsibilities does that impart?

Those out there who are students, what do you expect from former profs? Those who are profs, what sense of obligation do you feel to former students?